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Broken Embraces (2009)

WARNING: NOT-SO-BLIND SPOILERS

Pedro Almodovar’s “Los abrazos rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) begins with a movie being filmed. We’re seeing through a camera as technicians fuss around the female star, who stands in the center, lost in thought. She might be bored. At one point, she charmingly gives her lips a Chaplinesque back-and-forth waggle. Then she’s replaced by Penelope Cruz. The original girl wasn’t the star but the stand-in. One anticipates doppelganger themes, or themes of perception, for the rest of Almodovar’s film. The person you’re watching isn’t the person you think you’re watching.

Indeed, after the opening credits, we get a close-up of a female eye with the face of a man visible in the pupil. The man who’s being seen can’t see. He’s writer-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who gave up the name, and the directing half of his profession, when he lost his sight 15 years earlier. Now he goes by the nom de plume Harry Caine.

The owner of the eye (Kira Miro) is reading to Harry at the breakfast table about the death of a businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Is she his nurse? After quizzing her about Martel’s death, he says he’s not interested in the news; he’s interested in her. What’s she like? He asks for her measurements (36-26-36). He asks her to describe her looks. He asks if he can touch her face with his hands. He does. And he works his way down. And her breathing gets heavier. And he lifts the thin straps of her chemise and squeezes her breasts.

Me in the audience: Pedro, you are my favorite gay man.

They have sex on the couch, which Almodovar films discreetly but sensually, as he pans slowly across the back of the couch, revealing a hand there, a foot there. Afterwards, with the woman in the bathroom, another woman, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), arrives and looks disapprovingly at Harry. He senses her disapproval and tells her: “Everything’s already happened to me. All that’s left is to enjoy life.” The reader of the newspaper isn’t his nurse after all; she’s simply somebody who helped him across the street. And Judit? Is she maid to Harry? Assistant? Friend? Ex-wife? One senses a history. And the handsome young man, Diego (Tamar Novas), who shows up a minute later? He’s her son, but what is he to Harry? He almost seems like a son to him, too. Much of the movie is sussing out such relationships. What do these characters mean to each other? You could say that’s the question each of us asks every day. What do we characters mean to each other?

By the way: Harry’s wrong. Everything hasn’t happened to him. And it’s the death of Martel that sets things in motion again.

Harry tells Judit a story he wants to make into a film. The playwright Arthur Miller had a son with Down Syndrome whom he cut out of his life; but the son grew to a man and forgave him, going so far as to tell him, at a fundraiser for people like himself, “I’m proud of you, papa.” It’s a story about an overwhelming act of forgiveness, but soon Harry is visited by a young filmmaker, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about the opposite: filial unforgiveness. A father who couldn’t abide a gay son, who made the son ignore what he was. Bitterness emanates from Ray—it’s obvious he’s talking about himself—but Harry detects even more, and, with Diego’s help, realizes that Ray is the son of Ernesto Martel, and Ernesto Martel is the man who ruined Harry’s life.

Much of the rest of the film is flashback—told by Harry to Diego.

In 1992, Lena (Penelope Cruz), not an actress at all but secretary to Martel, is overwhelmed because her father is dying of stomach cancer and the health-care system is spitting him out. Martel is sympathetic, allowing her the afternoon off to attend to him. But things get worse for the father. He’s in agony. At one time Lena was a budding actress but went nowhere except into the role of sometime, high-class prostitute, and she contacts her former madam to get some quick money to help her father. Except a client phones her at home and that’s not the way it works. The madam admits, with a shrug, that one wealthy client insisted that if Lena ever returned to the business he would get her home phone. The client, by the way, is Martel. Initially we wonder if it’s all a fantastic coincidence. Then we don’t. As solicitous as he initially seemed, he’s always had his eye on her. After he helps her get her father into assisted care, the two walk away together, not touching. One senses debts about to be paid.

Two years later she’s his mistress. Meanwhile director Mateo Blanco is making a comedy, “Chicas y maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” recognizable as a spin on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and Lena wants to try out for a role. She does, and there’s an immediate spark between the two. Judit, who’s around even then, is jealous. Martel is jealous. He gets his son, Ernesto, Jr., the future Ray X, hampered by bad skin, bad hair and big glasses, to film them as they film the movie; then he employs a lip reader to tell him what they’re saying. Initially it’s all work stuff. But behind closed doors, away from Ernesto, Jr.’s camera, we find out it’s more. They’re hot and heavy in love. Martel suspects it and takes Lena away for a weekend.

I’m not a huge Almodovar fan but I love the way he allows us the time and space to figure things out. At this point in the movie, for example, we see two people making love under the sheets. For a second the sheets seem like a shroud. Are they? Is this sex as death? Yet the two seem to be enjoying themselves. Is it Lena and Mateo? No, when the sheets are removed, it’s Lena and Martel, away for the weekend. So maybe she loves both men?

Then she goes into the bathroom and throws up. It was sex as death. The sheets were a shroud.

The following Monday, having spent all weekend acting with Martel, her acting before the camera suffers, and when Mateo questions her she complains about Martel, calling him a monster. Of course it’s all filmed by Ernesto, Jr., and said aloud by the lip-reader. And now Martel knows.

This is where Almodovar loses me. He’s always had a bit of Douglas Sirk in him and I’ve never liked grand-staircase melodrama. But that’s what we get. Lena returns to say her final goodbyes, and, just as she’s heading down the grand staircase, he pushes her, she falls, she can’t get up. Now she’s in a cast. How can they film the rest of her scenes? They improvise. Then she shows up at Mateo’s with bruises on her face, and, with the film in the can, she and Mateo go away for a month and only return to Madrid when their movie opens to critical pans. Mateo must find out what they did to ruin his film in his absence.

During the course of watching this film, Almodovar’s film, we assume Lena’s dead, since she’s not in the present; so we wonder how she died and how Mateo went blind. That’s in the last act. On their way back to Madrid, Ernesto, Jr., looking sinister, is on their trail again, thanks to information he and his father received reluctantly from Judit. He’s filming them as they kiss in their car at an intersection; and he’s filming them as they pull out into the intersection and an SUV slams into the passenger’s side, killing Lena, blinding Mateo.

In other words: Someone meant them harm, harm was done, but the two aren’t related. It was all a horrible accident.

In the end, Harry and Diego—his son, he learns, 90 minutes after the rest of us figure it out—work together to re-make “Chicas y maletas,” which Martel had purposely sabotaged. Ray X is helpful, too. Forgiveness, the point of the Arthur Miller story, abounds.

I’m all for forgiveness but “Broken Embraces” ranges too far with its story and themes and feels weak as a result. I expected, even as I wrote this, for the film to coalesce in some way, but it didn’t, or hasn’t. At the start, the people you’re watching are not the people you think you’re watching: the movie star who’s a stand-in; the nurse who’s a fling. For the rest of the film, everyone is exactly who you think they are. I guess I wanted something a little more melodramatic, or at least surprising, from Mr. Almodovar. I didn’t want twists so obvious even a blind man could see them.

—January 15, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard